Jenny and Tyler‘s work has moved from sun-flecked acoustic pop to full-band, emotive indie rock over their discography, and 10,000 Miles (Live in 2015) solidifies their mature approach to songwriting. Where their most recent studio release Of This I’m Sure showed their diversity of songwriting and arranging, this collection shows that they can really knock the songs out of the park live. They also show off how to make a live record that really works.
This album could be attributed to Jenny & Tyler featuring Andrew Picha, because their drummer is a game-changer. Picha’s thunderous percussion performances give “Song for You,” “My Dear One,” “Of This I’m Sure,” and “Faint Not” huge swells of dynamics and extra shots of adrenaline. These songs have percussion in the studio versions, but Picha really makes the songs come to life in this setting. The album isn’t all their loudest songs at maximum volume (although I, and probably Andrew Picha, would be totally okay with that); full band interpretations of the tender “In Everything You Do” and the yearning “Beloved One” are given extra dimensions by thoughtful, interesting percussion work. “Beloved One” is a particularly excellent take, as Picha delivers the churning drumbeat that underpins the legato vocals expertly. (Jenny and Tyler’s vocals are on point, as ever–their voices just sound so good together.)
It should also be noted that Picha’s drumming isn’t notably different than the original version of the track, but the recording of this album is expertly mixed and mastered to show off a different side of the tunes from the studio version. Songs never sound exactly the same as they do in the studio on stage, and the engineering team of Trent Stegink, Shane D. Wilson, and Bob Boyd decided to embrace that instead of trying to replicate the studio sound (which often ends up being clunky). Instead, the engineering here is bright, clear, and drums-forward, which gives the songs pop. Some live albums can sound muddy or distant, and none of those sonic missteps are present here. This recording is high quality.
J&T have an increasingly deep discography to draw from, so they had to make some cuts to get 10,000 Miles down to 16 songs. Thankfully, it seems that my interests and their interests align: excellent opener “Song For You” is the fourth different version of it that you can hear (if you include the 7 Songs version), “See the Conqueror” and “Psalm 46” are treated to beautiful acoustic versions, and even fan favorite (but now out-of-character) “One-eyed Cat” makes an appearance with a charming spoken introduction. There’s something for every J&T fan here, whether Of This I’m Sure was your first introduction or if you have early albums by them that can’t even be purchased online anymore.
This album is a must-have for any fan of J&T, and a great introduction to their work for those uninitiated. Even if you own their previous acoustic live album 7 Songs, 10,000 Miles builds on it in every way by including great arrangements of a full band, funny/serious stage banter, and impeccable song selection. Jenny and Tyler are working at a really high level right now: if you’re into earnest, acoustic-based indie-rock, you should check this record out. You can pre-order the record at iTunes now.
Disclaimer: This is an expanded version of a review that I originally posted to their iTunes pre-order.
Kindie rock is definitely a thing, so it’s not surprising that kindie-folk is a thing. And I do mean kindie-folk, not singer/songwriter (mad props to Tom Chapin though, that was my childhood right there). Hello Friendby The Hollow Trees is a vintage-style string band that also happens to be singing to children. Given the quirkiness of old-timey string bands [and the fact that “I Can’t Dance (I’ve Got Ants in My Pants)” is a real historical songthat was sung to adults], nothing in this album is that out-of-character for this type of sound.
So! Goofy lyrics abound (“What Do You Want on Your Taco?”, “Backward Bill,” “I Like To Draw”), but there’s also some here for the parents (“Poor Papa,” “It Ain’t No Fault of Mine,” “My Metaphor,” “The Whole Thing”) that have more depth when I thought about them. The music rattles along smile-inducingly with jaunty banjo strum, acoustic guitar picking, accordion, occasional kazoo, and fun male/female vocals. Closer “The Harmony Hills” plays up the warbling, breaking vocals to hide that it’s really a beautiful shuffle-snare country ballad; this band has chops, don’t sleep on that. If you’re looking for a really fun, summery folk album, you’ll find an unexpected gem in Hello Friend.
Darling Valley is the new name of Accents, a band that reveled in combining all sorts of genres into gleeful, occasionally rocket-powered folk-rock. Darling Valley changed some members along with their name, and as a result Crooked Orchardsis less folk-rock and more Lumineers-style folk-pop. But the quality of the work is still elite: the album is stuffed full of tunes with vocal melodies that I can’t say no to, elite instrumental performances, and enough lyrical poignancy to knock the socks off a skeptic or two. It’s the sort of album that makes you remember why folk-pop was fun in the first place, while showing that the genre can support more than skin-deep sentiments.
Darling Valley now sports three vocalists who trade off lead: two women and one man. Their vocal tones and melodic lines are each different; a traditional country female croon (“Moonshine”), a warm indie female coo (“‘Til Morning”), and a brash folk-rock male tenor (“Make It Right”) each get their own moment to shine. But this isn’t three soloists hogging the spotlight from each other, as they routinely back each other up with elegantly constructed harmonies. Songs like “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid” see them sharing the microphone, trading off lines and harmonies at whim. It kept me on my toes in the best of ways, wondering who was going to come in next.
The melodies that they deliver are diverse: from the weary tone and formal structure of “Moonshine” to the yearning power-pop melodies of “Graces” to the giddy folk-pop choruses of “Widows and Revolutionaries,” there’s an array of sounds in their upbeat work. Their quieter tunes also show pleasant variation. The love song “Written on My Bones” is as earnest and winsome as you would hope, while “Monsters” is a ’50s soul/Motown ballad filtered through a three-part folk harmony. By the time “Half Your Life”‘s anthemic vocal line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now” comes around to close out the album, it’s easy to be accustomed to how cool it is, until they up the ante in a way that’s so engaging that I’m not going to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, they know their voices and melodies are awesome, and they use them to their best ends on this song (and on the whole album).
This is not to malign the instrumental work, though! Their standard folk-pop set up (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, drums) is augmented by regular appearances of a brass section. Mumford and Sons could have ruined the horn line for them, but Darling Valley’s arrangements are so impeccably done that the horns feel triumphant instead of trite on “Who You Hold On To” and “You’ll Go Far, Kid.” The genre thefts that they so expertly pulled off in their previous incarnation are more subtle this time: “Who You Hold On To” has its giant closing section amped up by a 1-and-3-4 reggaeton drumbeat (for real), “Moonshine” nods more than a little to classic country, and “Monsters” has those Motown vibes. But even when they’re just playing their major-key brand of folk-pop/folk-rock, they show off guitar chops and careful arranging skills. A great example of this is the complex “Graces,” which has a lot more going on than meets the ear at first.
The lyrics also have a lot more happening than you’d expect: Darling Valley is composed of two married couples, so the lyrics skew toward married-people concerns. Oh, there’s still some dating songs on here (“Moonshine,” “‘Til Morning”), but even the dating songs have the weariness of having been around the block a few times. Then you get to the two different apology songs (“Graces,” “Make it Right”), a song favorably comparing a lover to a song on repeat (“Written on My Bones”), and a song about how getting married is sort of terrifying because it involves potentially giving up your dreams (“Monsters,” which has my vote for realest/rawest lyrical confession of 2016 so far), and you’re not in lyrical Kansas anymore.
These are not songs about infatuation; these are serious, grown-up lyrics about serious, grown-up love. You can still read dating into these words: the coda of the album, the repeated line “You won’t / always love me / like you do now,” can mean “You’re going to leave me someday.” However, in the context of the song, it could also mean “your love for me will change and not be the same as it is right now, because we are married and we’re going to be doing this for a long time and I have no idea what this will look like when we’re still doing this in 50 years and that is scary.” Again, real real. If you’d rather have enthusiastic folk-pop about how life is awesome, there’s always “You’ll Go Far, Kid”; but if you’re looking for something else, that’s here too. (“You’ll Go Far, Kid” is fantastic in its own right: vocally and instrumentally, it’s probably my favorite on the record. Its lyrics are hopeful and uplifting, too. But nothing in it is as emotionally lancing as the delivery of “‘Cus all my endings, they came from good intents” on “Make it Right,” or all of “Monsters.”)
I always hesitate to bring too much of myself to reviewing; I’m not a critic looking into music to write something about myself. But sometimes the connection jumps out: the Crooked Orchards of the title might be marriage itself, a joyous thing full of lovely fruit that doesn’t look exactly like I thought it would. In some ways it’s even more amazing than I thought it would be! And in some ways it’s just weird, sort of askew to what I imagined. I wouldn’t ever change it. But I could go back and tell my pre-married self that there’s just some things you can’t know until you’re there. (Also, the album title could just be really pretty words, like “cellar door,” or something else entirely.) Crooked Orchards is a beautiful album: it delves into matters of depth, taking relationships much farther than the standard album. To do so, they deliver incredible melodies and instrumental arrangements. It’s just excellent. Highly recommended.
Jons’ Serfs of Today is low-fi bliss. The Canadian band’s psychedelic rock recorded with iPhones and cassette recorders whisks listeners away to a heavenly place where the electric guitar reigns supreme.
“Sugarfree,” the first track off the album, throws us into a beautiful place of grainy recording quality and smooth-talking electric guitar. In fact, using one or two electric guitars as the main aspect of each of the tracks occurs throughout the album, fitting for psychedelic rock. Yet, “I Haven’t Learned” breaks that rule and uses a hearty acoustic guitar as its primary instrument. Secondary instruments include a drumkit and bass for the most part, but more unique instruments come into play on many tracks, such as the shakers in “Sugarfree” and perhaps wooden castanets in “Serfs of Today.”
The title track does not really sound like any of the other tracks. It jumps around in style throughout the song, with a long stretch of castanet-like instrument playing the song out. “Serfs of Today” works to separate the first half of the album’s sound from the second. A lot of the earlier tracks deliver this hazy lo-fi version of The Beach Boys (“Don’t Complain,” “Last Minute,” and “Orchachief”). The beachy guitar and chill vocals are primary characteristics of these tracks. Most of the later tracks are more saucy psychedelic rock like The Doors (“Other Room,” “Catamaran,” and “Softspot”) where the dream-like quality remains, but the bolder electric guitar and use of the bass stand out more.
“Last Call for Buss” closes the album out perfectly. At an even two minutes, the track is the shortest of them all. It opens with the more playful electric guitar from the first half of the record letting out whimsical rhythms. And just as you find yourself enjoying the track’s larkish nature, it gently fades out.
Serfs of Todayis the perfect combination of sublime and gritty. The soothing vocals, ravishing electric guitar, and grainy musical quality will surely send you off to dreamland.–Krisann Janowitz
1. “Mixtape 2003” – The Academic. Anyone who celebrates the mixtape is A-OK in my book. Throw those sentiments into a huge indie-pop-rock tune and you’ve got gold as far as I’m concerned. Fans of Tokyo Police Club, the Vaccines, and other extremely enthusiastic bands will be bopping their heads and drumming on their steering wheels.
2. “Primitive Style” – Johnny Delaware. Blasting piano lines, a howling chorus, and a mood that can probably make the sun shine brighter: what else could you want in an indie-rock jam?
3. “Chillin’ On the Beach With My Best Friend Jesus Christ” – SUSTO. Alt-country outfit SUSTO gets their beach on and creates an almost Zac Brown-esque vibe (albeit with more church organ). As to the title and subsequent lyrics, they feel like a parody, but then at other times they feel oddly real and comfortable, and then they go back; we all move along different paths in our spiritual journey. Or not. And maybe that’s the point. (The video is a frankly obvious parody of a particular type of Christianity.) As a believer, I’m cool with it. Their new album drops soon.
4. “You Should Know By Now (feat. Jamie Jackson)” – The Gifted. A melodic synth sounding somewhat like pizzicato strings takes up residence between a helter-skelter indie-rock vocal blitz and a skittering electro beat to create a uniquely energetic tune.
5. “Empty Holes” – Mike Simmons. A roaring, full-throated country/folk tune with lots of guitar fuzz and visions of big canyons dancing in my head.
6. “Nightfall” – Mortigi Tempo. A dark, tense journey turns into a stomping, headbanging Muse-esque ripper with towering guitars. The punchy mixing/mastering makes sure everything pops. The Felix Culpa also comes to mind.
7. “In Spit” – Agate Tunnel. A banjo and a hushed voice pressed right up against the microphone create immediate intimacy. When the songs opens up into a cloudy, full-band folk rumination with drama reminiscent of the Decemberists, it feels so right.
8. “Bliss” – Martin Forsell. I know that it’s everywhere, but folk-pop just sounds so great with clapping and group shouts. There’s a sort of urban polish here that takes this out of the realm of the standard folk-pop tune; the arrangement is bright, clear, and well-delivered.
9. “Here and Now” – Skout. This flowing folk track rides along smoothly on rolling acoustic guitar, subterranean bass, and subtle piano. The yearning lead vocal performance stands out against this lithe backdrop to create a just-right amount of beautiful tension.
10. “Just to Say Hello” – Triana Presley. A walking-speed singer/songwriter tune with a warm organ and a pretty vocal melody; perfect for a back-porch evening.
11. “Hopes and Regrets” – Mattias Phillips. A forceful left hand and dramatic dynamic shifts power this melancholy track piano solo. The lead melody is staccato yet pensive, the sound of a person boldly going despite uncertainty.
LA based three-piece Hand Drawn Maps’ latest EP Kites brings listeners a taste of the beach with a spritz of playful indie-pop. Like a well-garnished appetizer, Kites is a perfect taste of Hand Drawn Maps’ playful indie-pop-rock. Each track has a slightly different flavor, but what ties them together are the rock-solid vocals, poignant lyrics, and consistent instrumentation.
“Answer in Your Eyes” opens the album with a beachy guitar and subtle percussion. After a few measures, lead singer Stewart James enters in. The first thing I thought of when I heard James’ voice was Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service. James’ voice is very similar to Gibbard’s in tonal qualities and range. If you are a fan of Death Cab, you will find particular enjoyment in Hand Drawn Maps.
The second track, “Diamond,” is a cutesy love song with lyrics like, “When I’m with you/ you make my heart an ocean.” The beachy electric guitar makes another dreamy appearance anchoring this track. Towards the end of the song, the instrumentation virtually goes away so that the listener focuses on James and his harmonic background vocal accompaniment.
“Follow the Sun” is probably my favorite track off the EP. It’s somber and darker than the other tracks. Hand Drawn Maps does a really great job matching the lyrics with the instrumentation. For this one, the chorus is basically a percussive/electric guitar build that tries three times to meet its climax, but instead keeps fizzling out. With lyrics like, “I know that I’m gone like a star that disappears at the first light of dawn,” you can see how the instrumentation matches the lyrics: they both are unable to reach their mountain-top experiences. It is not until the last attempt that the instruments reach their climax, paired with the repeated lyric “Gonna let the sunlight in,” the most hopeful lyric of the song. Eventually, that also fades away, and the track ends sounding exactly how it began, showing the cyclical nature of hopelessness. Sometimes, even glimmers of hope can’t take the emptiness away.
“Kites” opens with a playful combination of the electric guitar and bass. This song sounds like one big self-pep talk, as seen in the title lyric: “Relax and let the breeze/ take control and carry me/ just like a kite.” The final track, “Cast Away the Night,” begins with the use of chimes, which echoes the more meditative route the track takes. This softer track is a nice way to close an otherwise adventurous EP. —Krisann Janowitz
Alex Ross makes a compelling case at the beginning of his second book Listen to This that a large group of classical music’s proponents have been systematically enshrining older music as better, minimizing the praise of modern composers, and insisting that classical music is dying for over 200 years. He then performs a deconstruction of this mentality by discussing everyone from Mozart to Bjork, from Schubert to Sonic Youth, with the same critical lens in one so far deeply enjoyable tome. (I know a book is good when I can’t even get all the way through before I want to talk about it; I’m a little under halfway through its 345 pages.) That sort of “toss out the rules” mentality should be applied to Mutual Benefit‘s Skip a Sinking Stone, which draws just as much from “classical music” as it does the folk-pop of the outfit’s immediate history to create a beautiful release that transcends both labels.
The first thing to note about Skip a Sinking Stone is that strings are almost omnipresent. They are employed in a multitude of ways, from huge riffs to quiet melodies to subtle background work to mountainous crescendos reminiscent of John Luther Adams’ slowly unfolding work (which also gets loving treatment in Listen to This). Their use is not auxiliary, but essential: they largely lay down the sonic palette that Lee paints with throughout Stone. Look no further than the title track, which follows an instrumental intro, for evidence: the strings carry the weight here, building the base of the song and owning the highest points of excitement almost by themselves. It’s deeply unusual to hear strings so thoroughly integrated into a sound taking place in the popular realm: instead of an orchestra supporting a pop song (as has been done expertly by everyone from The Arcade Fire to The Decemberists to The Collection), the orchestra and the pop song are coterminous; they are part and parcel of the same thing. They are inseparable in listening and in criticism.
As a result, Stone has a unique mood and temperament throughout: it feels organic, bright, almost alive. The sense that it has grown up out of the earth and become a rose-filled garden strikes me in almost every song. “Lost Dreamers” has the warm, mid-tempo feel of a gentle walk with a good friend; “Not for Nothing,” the closest thing to a folk-pop song presented here, is a subtly magnificent piece of work that induces swaying and smiling. “Nocturne” gets literal and includes the recorded sounds of a forest in a delicate interlude. The incredible secret of Stone is not just that it feels deeply organic, but that it manages to fold in electronics to heighten the sense of earthiness instead of divorce from it. Fluttery synthesizers come in with the piano and strings on the opening instrumental “Madrugada,” helping to create the oversaturated-with-light vibe. (Synths/theramin-sounding-like-synth has another moment on the carefully constructed, dusky ballad “Many Returns.”) It’s a rare fusion that comes off as more than the sum of its parts, creating a beautiful sonic space.
The strings’ ubiquitous presence in that sonic space is matched in importance only by sonorous piano and Jordan Lee’s delicate voice. Lee does use his acoustic guitar in some of these songs (“Slow March” and “Many Returns,” most notably), but the piano is the most valuable player here. By taking his folk-pop songwriting sentiments and translating them to the piano, he has created the ability for his songwriting to be infused with strings to the great degree that it is. It’s not to say that a meshing of acoustic guitar and strings can’t happen–but here the delicate yet solid presence of the keys matches the fluttery yet concrete nature of the strings beautifully. It’d be easy to point to “City Sirens,” which contains only piano and strings, as proof, but the better example is the majestic “Skipping Stones,” which would be a considerably different song if it were played on acoustic guitar.
Lee’s voice is the last major element here: his delicate, innocent-sounding tenor conveys wide sweeps of emotion without resorting to dramatic lengths. Through strong development of melodies, careful use of background vocals, and a keen sense of how to arrange the band for maximum vocal effect, Lee gives his voice power without ever losing its wide-eyed sense of wonder. The performance of the vocals throughout echoes the damaged but insistent hope that plays throughout “Skipping Stones” and the rest of the album: Lee’s vocals can go from assured to lost to hopeful and back through all those emotions in a single section of song. His voice never strains or grasps for notes, fitting beautifully into the bright, light, lithe sonic environment he has created.
Skip a Sinking Stone has so much to admire that I can’t fit it all into one review; I didn’t even get a chance to touch the lovely lyrics or the smart percussion. It’s a beautiful, remarkable, even majestic album that bends the boundaries between folk, pop, and classical in the most pleasant way I’ve heard all year. If you’re into bands with orchestral aspirations (Lost in the Trees, Sufjan Stevens, The Collection, et al), you will absolutely love this record. It’s going to be high on my list of albums of the year, for sure. Highly recommended.
Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning left an indelible mark on my musical brain. I’ve never liked anything that Conor Oberst has put out so thoroughly: the neurotic energy, youthful fervor, and surrealist lyrics fit perfectly with that specific rambunctious alt-country backdrop. I seek out shades of those raw, impassioned blasts of acoustic guitar and barked vocals wherever I can. Josiah and the Bonnevilles‘ Cold BloodEP is the direct successor of that landmark album. It’s a stake in the ground that establishes the outfit as one to watch: a specific vision expertly handled within the goalposts of a genre framework that people are already familiar with.
The title track took five seconds to entrance me: Josiah calls out into empty space “I’ve got a girl / she only puts out water in the night, in the day, and in the morning” over a nimble fingerpicking pattern. His tenor has a rough edge on it, tempered a bit by the gentle reverb added to it: it’s a magnetic, arresting voice. The rest of the band tag-teams their band through the song: a solitary tambourine is joined by a shaker to create the full percussion line; the round, full bass opens the song up; and the marimba (what) gives a mysterious air to the tune. Instruments come in and fall out (strings! background vocals!), but the whole thing is guided confidently toward a full product by Josiah’s bent, worried lyrics and evocative vocal performance. It’s an expertly crafted tune that you need to hear.
The other three tunes build on the promise of the first track. “Can You Hear It” amps up the singalong vibe and throws down a jaunty piano line to buoy the major-key song. “Lie to Me” returns to the minor key and bashes out a full-band apology to a girl in a relationship that’s falling apart; this one reprises the tambourine from “Cold Blood” and the piano of “Can You Hear It,” but puts in a full drumkit to come up with the most rock-oriented track here. It would sound like Dawes if Josiah’s voice sounded anything like Taylor Goldsmith’s. Closer “Long Gone” features more fingerpicking in a slightly unusual pattern that seems to be tripping over itself trying to get to the end of the riff, perfectly mirroring the narrator’s activity in the song. The band floats in for a final chorus, but it’s most a solo effort, showing Josiah’s troubadour abilities.
The four-song EP is gone much too quickly, but the songs are of such diversity (and such high quality) that you can just loop it back to the beginning and you’ll be good to go for another twelve minutes (or 24, or 36, or…). It’s that good. Call it alt-country, alt-folk, whatever; you’ll know what it is when you hear it. The shadow of youthful alt-countriers past hangs over it but never engulfs it; instead Josiah points the way toward his own path. I’m verging on the purple prose here, but the songs really are that good. Josiah and the Bonneville’s Cold Blood EP is a remarkable first effort that shows off unique arranging skills, intriguing vocals, and strong overall songs. I can’t wait to hear more from this outfit. Highly recommended.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.